Read about it in Artforum!

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Read about it in Artforum!

By Gwen Allen May 27, 2015

Accompanying this article is a portfolio of images from artist Francesca Pastine, courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.


With meager funding and even less experience, Artforum came into being.

In June 1962, a new art magazine published in San Francisco hit the newsstands. John Irwin, for one, was hoping it would succeed. This was his first publishing endeavor, and he was counting on it to be his ticket away from the dreariness of going door-to-door sales, hawking printing services for the Pisani Printing Company. Making his rounds between the Pisani press on Brannan Street and the Financial District, Irwin would sometimes meander in the downtown galleries in the afternoon. He would stop into the Bolles Gallery on Sansome Street to visit Philip Leider, a friend who ran the gallery. A transplanted New Yorker, Leider had come to San Francisco on a lark, driving across the country with his wife to work for the city’s social services agency, eventually attending law school through the G.I. Bill, and dropping out three months before graduation.

On one of these languid afternoons in early 1962, Leider suggested to Irwin that, if he wanted to make some money for Pisani, he should start a San Francisco art magazine. Leider thought the time was ripe for a publication that would support the local art scene and create a greater audience for San Francisco artists. He wanted to call it Art West. John Coplans and James Monte, artists who exhibited in the Bolles Gallery, were also enthusiastic about the prospect of a San Francisco­–focused art magazine. They were weary of always reading about the same New York artists in Art in America or Arts Magazine or Art News. At Leider’s urging, Irwin convinced his boss, Mike Pisani, to back the magazine financially and set up a small editorial office on Howard Street near the printing office. And so, with meager funding and even less experience, Artforum came into being.

Francesca Pastine. ArtForum 50, Hindsight, Mask Series, 2014; Cut ARTFORUM magazine; 12 x 13.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.

The first issue of the square, glossy periodical—its name boldly printed in the top-right corner in uppercase, black sans serif, with a stapled spine and just a few small black-and-white gallery advertisements—was considerably slighter and sparer than it is today. On Artforum’s inaugural cover, barely discernable against an ochre background, was the detail of a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely: a dark, mysterious, tenebrous form that in its indistinctness suggested the inchoate identity of the fledgling publication. With an initial circulation of about three thousand, this unknown Californian art magazine gave few indications of the decisive role it would play in the twentieth-century art world.

The magazine’s founders strove to materially embody the term forum, with its connotation of lively public debate and commercial exchange, since the ancient Roman forum that inspired the magazine’s name was first and foremost a marketplace. Artforum demarcated its forum as a special section, printed on brightly colored construction paper. “That center section will contain a lot of divergent and contradictory opinion[s],” read an editorial note in the first issue.1

Artforum’s design and logo were created by a young graphic designer named James Robertson, who was then teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute.2 The Artforum logo and the magazine’s square shape reflect the influence of the Swiss style of graphic design, pioneered during the 1950s by Josef Müller-Brockmann and Emil Ruder. Swiss design was rooted in the principles of objectivity, utility, and, perhaps above all, legibility. Sans serif typefaces, stripped of their excrescences as if to reveal their most basic alphabetical form, were believed to be more legible and hence more suitable for relaying public messages because they would not distract the reader with “decorative feet and growing and diminishing thickness of the up and down strokes [of roman typefaces].”3

Francesca Pastine. ArtForum 37, Unsolicited Collaboration with Kara Walker, ArtForum Excavation Series, 2011; ARTFORUM magazine; 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.

The Artforum logo is a condensed, bold version of the Berthold Akzidenz font, a notable fact, considering how difficult it was in 1962 to order the fonts favored by the Swiss school through local European foundries. (This was about to change: Spartan Typographers in Oakland began carrying the Helvetica font just a few months after the Artforum logo was designed.) Robertson created his logo by hand with a razor blade and adhesive.4 The rest of the magazine was set in News Gothic, an American sans serif designed in 1907 by Morris Fuller Benton for the American Type Founders. News Gothic, while not used by Swiss designers, was known for its geometric look and had more affinity to the Swiss aesthetic than other American sans serifs. Since Artforum was printed with hot-metal type methods, the choice of News Gothic was most certainly guided in part by the availability of that font at the Pisani Press, which had a limited variety of molds for casting type.

Early issues of the magazine, with their typos and the occasional upside-down picture, attest to a period of trial and error as staff members confronted the steep learning curve of the task at hand. As Leider recalled, “I can’t tell you how green I was. I didn’t know what typesetting was. I didn’t know what photoengraving was. I didn’t know anything…I had to learn everything.”5 What Artforum lacked in material resources and expertise, it made up for in energy and ambition. Leider, Coplans, and Monte all helped to find writers, artists, and advertisers. But it was Leider, as the founding editor-in-chief, who would shape the magazine’s future most profoundly.

Francesca Pastine; ArtForum 33, Stella in the Snow, ArtForum Excavation, Pour Series, 2011; ARTFORUM magazine; 14 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.

Leider explicitly envisioned Artforum as a mouthpiece for West Coast artists who felt overlooked by the mainstream New York–based art press and especially as “a counterpoint to Art News,” which under the editorship of Thomas Hess in the 1950s had become the leading art magazine in the United States.6 References to New York are virtually absent from Artforum’s first several issues, which instead feature articles and reviews focusing on exhibitions in the Bay Area and other West Coast cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles. New York reviews would not begin appearing in the magazine until 1964.

Most people agree that this is when the magazine started to become interesting.

But by 1965, the magazine was failing financially. It was purchased by Charles Cowles, who immediately moved it to Los Angeles, presumably because of that city’s more lively art scene and potential advertising revenue. At this time, Artforum began to publish New York–based critics and to cover New York art while continuing to emphasize West Coast– and particularly Los Angeles–based writers and artists. Most people agree that this is when the magazine started to become interesting. According to Max Kozloff, who was among the first New York critics to be hired by Artforum in Los Angeles, the magazine was perceived as “a thin, local—and therefore, it seemed, a marginalized thing.”7 But it was the publication’s initial aloofness from East Coast art-world politics—its “purity”—that appealed to the group of New York critics who began writing for the magazine in the mid-1960s, including Kozloff, Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Sidney Tillim, Michael Fried, Robert Pincus-Witten, Annette Michelson, and Rosalind Krauss.8 And the magazine’s early remove from the New York art world played a role in the subsequent editorial risks that made Artforum remarkable during the mid-to-late 1960s, including its sponsorship of formalist criticism and its publication of experimental artists’ writings.

As it gained a reputation and increased its advertising and subscription income, the magazine soon followed the art world’s gravitational pull; it moved to New York in 1967, earning accusations of abandoning the West Coast art scene for East Coast prestige and advertising revenue. Once again, the move seemed predicated by sheer survival, as it is difficult to imagine that Leider was enticed by fame or fortune. He initially wanted Artforum to be advertisement-free, and he once described his near phobic avoidance of the art world’s social scene: “I prefer correspondence to other forms of communication, hate using the telephone, am terrified of meeting people…[and] get physically sick at all social functions, especially art world parties and openings.”9

Once established in New York, Artforum was not merely swept into the centripetal force of the art world; in many ways, the publication became the center of its orbit. Donald Judd, writing in 1969, complained, “Artforum since moving to New York has seemed like Art News in the 1950s. There’s serious high art and then there’s everybody else, all equally low…Bell and Irwin hardly exist; Greenbergers such as Krauss review all the shows…Artforum is probably the best art magazine but it’s depressing that it’s gotten so bad and close to the others.”10

Francesca Pastine; ARTFORUM 52, Sub Rosa, Mask Series, 2014; Cut ARTFORUM magazine; 11.5 x 13 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.

By 1970, even Philip Leider seemed to have doubts about the magazine’s changing identity and role, which he expressed in the essay, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah,” published in the September issue of that year. The article chronicled his cross-country trip through the deserts of Nevada and Utah, where he visited recently executed earthworks, including Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Written in the present tense, it recreates for the reader the rush of disconnected events and sights that Leider experienced and contemplated on his journey. Peppered with quotations from Abbie Hoffman, the article turns repeatedly to the relationship between art and politics, trying, if unsuccessfully, to reconcile these terms. Leider’s most salient political reference is to the Vietnam War—the war forms the backdrop against which his reflections take place—but he also mentions Kent State, Altamont, the Weather Underground, the Manson murders, the feminist movement, and the ecology movement.

In this essay, Leider wonders “whether the times were not forcing us to a completely new set of ideas about what an artist was and what an artist did,” and in an assessment that breaks completely with the formalist criticism that had dominated the magazine under his tenure, he notes, “[T]he question of what is revolutionary art isn’t too different, in the end, from the question of what is good art.”11 If Leider’s article conveys his disillusionment with formalist criticism, it also hints at his growing disenchantment with the magazine itself. The article’s self-deprecating subtitle “Read About It in Artforum!” sarcastically compares the magazine to a sensationalist tabloid. Leider would resign in 1971, effectively bringing the first chapter of the magazine’s history to a close.

Francesca Pastine. ArtForum 34, Unsolicited Collaboration with Seth Price, ArtForum Excavation Series, 2011; ARTFORUM magazine; 12 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.

When people talk about “the early Artforum” or “Artforum in the 1960s,” they are usually describing the period between roughly 1966 and 1969, during Artforum’s last year in Los Angeles and its first few years in New York. The summer 1967 issue, which coincided with the move to New York, is often singled out as being representative of this period. This issue published Fried’s famous essay, “Art and Objecthood,” alongside writings by Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt. The relationship between this canonical period and the publication’s salad days in San Francisco is not easy to gauge. Artforum’s inception and first few years in San Francisco might be characterized as merely an incubator for what came later. Yet this assessment does not render those early years any less necessary. If anything, it speaks to the nature of magazines: they are often founded as containers for something that does not yet exist, and once that thing comes into existence, the magazine’s original editorial impetus must change accordingly.

Artforum’s perceived dominance over other art magazines has prompted countless efforts to challenge its authority and to create alternative publications. Yet its own history—whether viewed as an inspirational model or a cautionary tale—is instructive, complicating any hard and fast distinctions between alternative and mainstream culture. Perhaps Thomas Crow said it best when, looking back at the early days of Artforum on its thirtieth anniversary, he observed, “[T]he critical force of the old Artforum was never anything but a lived contradiction between thought and commerce. We have passed through a period when commerce has displayed the superior intelligence and outrun the theoreticians: simply getting back to a state of effective contradiction is the task of the moment.”12


  1. Editor, Artforum, June 1962, 2.
  2. Information about James Robertson’s original design for Artforum was provided by Bruce Montgomery, a partner in the firm Robertson-Montgomery, in telephone conversations and email correspondence with the author. Additional information, as well as other examples of Robertson’s work at that time, was found in archives at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Robertson taught in the early 1960s. 
  3. Josef Muller-Brockmann, The Graphic Designer and His Design Problems (Niedereufen: Arthur Niggli, 1961), 16.
  4. From the author’s email correspondence with Bruce Montgomery.
  5. Philip Leider, interviewed in Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962–1974 (New York: SoHo, 2000), 92.
  6. John Coplans, quoted in “Art as News,” Newsweek, September 18, 1972.
  7. Max Kozloff, interviewed in Newman, Challenging Art, 56.
  8. Max Kozloff, interviewed in Newman, Challenging Art, 56.
  9. Philip Leider, in a letter to Michael Fried, November 7, 1966, quoted in Newman, Challenging Art, 209.
  10. Donald Judd, “Complaints I,” Studio International, April 1969, 184.
  11. Philip Leider, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah (Read About It in Artforum!),” Artforum, September 1970, 42.
  12. Thomas Crow, “Art Criticism in the Age of Incommensurate Values: On the Thirtieth Anniversary of Artforum,” in Modern Art and the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University, 1996), 93. 

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